Mural lifts profile of Maori art on street

HANNAH MCKEE
Last updated 05:00 03/07/2014
Johnson Witehira
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

OUT AND ABOUT: Johnson Witehira is bringing Maori art to the urban landscape.

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Look around, Johnson Witehira says. "Look around the office, look outside the window . . . you probably won't see any Maori art anywhere."

It's something the designer is hoping to change, one Maori street art installation at a time.

Many would already have seen Witehira's The Land of Tara lightbox artworks in Courtenay Place, but his latest project is Waituhi - a colourful, 20-metre by 4m mural in Opera House Lane.

With support from the Wellington City Council, Witehira's design for the previously graffiti-laden space works around three key themes - Matariki, the site once belonging to the shoreline, and kaitiakitanga (guardianship).

"I've included Tawhirimatea, he's the deity in Maori mythology associated with weather, and with Wellington's wind I've put him as the guardian of Wellington."

For the Taumarunui-born designer, Waituhi is another chance to bring something Maori into the urban landscape. "Often I find myself standing on a Wellington street and I'll be hard pressed to see anything Maori.

"Visually Wellington's very monocultural, it's all a very Pakeha landscape, so putting Maori art on to the street makes it inviting, maybe. I want to bring culture back into our lives."

But it is not just a case of slapping paint on a wall. "I do lots of planning, too much maybe. I guess because I'm a designer I show up with everything mapped out to scale, then I put up a projector and sketch it out.

"It makes it easier and as simple as possible for the other artists and friends helping me. It would take me weeks on my own, but with them I can lay down big blocks of colour and I'm doing the detail."

Witehira, who has a PhD in Maori design, had his artwork on Times Square billboards in New York in 2012. But his biggest career highlight so far is his Maori alphabet blocks.

He hopes to finish Waituhi today. "It's been really nice having people see its progress. I haven't heard anyone say it's crap."

Later this month, Witehira will be working on more projects with City Gallery Wellington, the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, and he is looking to create Maori wallpaper.

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